Confessions of a Reluctant Teacher

September 4, 2009

How I Learned to Write, Part 2

Click here to read Part 1.

When we last saw our heroine, she was about to dive into the underworld of academia, the dirty little secret of many overachieving students: cheating.  Only in order to save her GPA (and her smart-girl reputation), of course.

I wasn’t going to do anything as crass as purchasing a ready-made essay from the internet.  After all, I genuinely wanted to do the work; I just couldn’t figure out how.  I decided I’d check out every book of literary criticism of Kafka from our library.  I’d pick passages relevant to my assigned story, paraphrase them, and cobble them together to form a cohesive essay: my own brand of Plagiarism Lite.

As I read through these books, however, an amazing thing happened: I learned how to think about Kafka’s writing.  I remember literally saying at one point, “Oh, so that’s what my professor wants me to do!”  While reading these other writers, I found myself thinking of other citations from the story to support their claims, sometimes disagreeing with their arguments, and sometimes drawing my own, unique conclusions about Kafka’s words.  At the end of the course, both of the papers I turned in were wholly original.  I never had to plagiarize a single word.

Unfortunately, it seems rare for other students to have the same revelation I did: that writing is an opportunity for me to engage with a writer, an event, or a way of seeing the world.  I am so glad that I got a chance to learn that writing is not about telling a professor what she wants to hear.  It’s about finding out what you have to say.  Of course, when writing, you should consider what the reader wants.  If no one is interested in what you have to say, no one will read your words, and then your writing becomes an exercise in one hand clapping.  But I think having something to say is the foundation of all good writing.

Ironically, that is ultimately what led me away from a major in literature.  Although I enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of literary criticism and there are people who turn it into a career, I realized that whatever I wrote in that genre wouldn’t be anything I really wanted to say.  While I believe great literature can be relevant no matter how long ago it was written (that’s what makes it great), I just don’t think what critics say about it matters that much.  Anybody who reads literary criticism probably already has ideas of his own about the text, anyway.  And that’s how the author meant his or her writing to be: an intimate conversation between himself or herself and another individual, multiplied thousands or millions of times over.  I have no desire to get in the middle of that.  Now that I can enjoy books without a professor’s agenda hanging over my head, I don’t beat myself up if I don’t understand why everyone thinks The Brothers Karamazov is so great.  I can just accept that Dostoevsky’s message in that book wasn’t meant for me, and I can move on to something that really resonates with me, like Notes from Underground.

So I was greatly encouraged to see last weekend’s New York Times article spotlighting teachers who don’t assign and “teach” certain books: they let their students choose what they want to read.  Instead of the teacher leading a discussion to “teach” the book, they all take turns giving mini-presentations to the class, talking about the book and often recommending it to their classmates.  Sure, the occasional student picks Captain Underpants, but many students have been inspired by their peers to read major literary works like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, or A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines.  The students may not fully grasp the subtext or be able to “unpack” certain passages, but I think authors have a reason for embedding their perspective on certain issues within a fictional story, instead of just writing an essay.  It’s OK to just enjoy the story, and if you’d like to learn how to peer into the author’s deeper meaning, I suggest checking out How to Read Literature like a Professor.

Nevertheless, it is completely possible to enjoy great literature without being “taught” how to do so.  After all, The Last of the Mohicans sold the modern equivalent of 10 million copies in the early 1800s, long before every man, woman, and child was expected to sit through an English class to learn how to properly appreciate great writing.  Come to think of it, some of them even managed to learn to write that great literature without the benefit of instruction.  Maybe we should give today’s budding readers and writers some of the same trust and freedom.


July 15, 2009

Shop Class as Soulcraft: How did I not hear about this book?!

Filed under: Books — christinag503 @ 9:37 pm

There is already a long waiting list for Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew B. Crawford, at the Multnomah County Library. I just became #163 in line.

From the essay (adapted from the book) published in the New York Times Magazine this May, I think Mr. Crawford and I have a lot in common. He connects the disconnection and absurdity many people experience in the corporate, cubicle life to the burgeoning economic crisis. I especially enjoyed his story about a workplace that “demanded that [he] project an image of rationality but not indulge too much in actual reasoning.”

He also makes a few brief mentions of the role of School, as an institution that supposedly prepares the next generation to contribute to society in an economic capacity. As I mentioned in an older post, the current trend of herding the population into colleges to turn them into “knowledge workers” results in profit for the institutions, and unsustainable ‘education inflation’ for the rest of us. I like how Mr. Crawford states it:

“The escalating demand for academic credentials in the job market gives the impression of an ever-more-knowledgeable society, whose members perform cognitive feats their unschooled parents could scarcely conceive of. On paper, my abstracting job, multiplied a millionfold, is precisely what puts the futurologist in a rapture: we are getting to be so smart! Yet my M.A. obscures a more real stupidification of the work I secured with that credential, and a wage to match.”

I love that word, stupidification.

From what I’ve read of the essay, he is a skillful, engaging writer, and I am so excited to read the rest of his book! I might even buy it (from an independent bookstore, of course) if the library takes too long. If anyone else has read this book, please let me know what you thought.

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